Book Review: How to Read Literature Like Professor

Dear Reader,

I have mentioned this book in some earlier posts (see here and here), but I have now finished it and wanted to give a proper review. How to Read Literature like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster is definitely going on my “recommend” list. As its title implies, Foster shows you how to approach a work of literature as he, a college English professor, would. His goal, as he says, is not to deconstruct texts but to help you enjoy and understand them more. And you can really tell that he enjoys them. I got the impression as I read this book that here is someone who loves what he does and is trying to share it with others so they can enjoy it too. Now I will say that one man’s literary analysis can be another man’s deconstruction so there may be some who find that he goes too far. Foster comes to the works he discusses with a lot of background knowledge of the writers themselves and also of the history of literature. It can seem intimidating and I can easily see how someone without all that knowledge would find their head swimming and think “where is he getting all this?” and “how does he know it means that?” But I do think Foster’s goal is, as he says, to show why his approach is valuable and to give the likes of you and me some understanding of how to do what he does and some of the tools to do so.

Most of the book is spent on short chapters with topics like “It’s all about Shakespesre” and “Fairytales” ad “Roads.” Basically Foster goes through a lot of things that can influence writers or can be common themes or symbols one will find in literature. He tries to show how to identify these things and how to begin thinking about what they mean. He uses lots of examples and occasionally, though perhaps not as often as I would like, gives “how to”s. This is a huge, really limitless topic, however, and he is only going to be able to do so much. So one may come out of it not feeling a lot more equipped. I hope, though, that you will come out of it as I did, having a greater appreciation for this way of approaching literature and wanting to be able to do so. Beyond that, I think there is only so much Foster or anyone can add. At a certain point one just needs to start reading and reading and reading and with some thought hopefully connections will be made.

I think a stumbling block for some may be in the very premise of this book, that is, in the why of it all. So I would like to spend a minute on the why. Rather than rehash Foster’s arguments (go get the book and you can read those for yourself), I would like to say why I liked this book. Foster’s approach resonated with me because I found it akin to two things I am already involved in. The first is how we interpret the Bible. When reading biblical stories, one of the first things I often ask my kids is “what else in the Bible does this remind you of?” In biblical interpretation we call these types and antitypes. They are things like the flood and baptism but also the flood and baptism and the crossing of the Red Sea and Joshua parting the Jordan and Elijah parting the Jordan. God seems to use the same patterns again and again. A new reader will not see all things as being related but they are. The more we read our Bibles, the more we will be able to make such connections and from them we will learn ideas. Foster takes this same approach and extends it to all literature (and the biblical themes and symbols are also a big part of what affects other literature as well). It seems daunting because the Bible at least is self-contained and Foster is really looking at all of literature. No one will ever be able to take it all in, but the more one has read and knows, the more he will be able to read like a professor (as Foster’s title says).

The second reason Foster’s apprach resonated with me is that it seems to fit so well with a Charlotte Mason approach to education. CM’s philosophy is about making connections and that it exactly what Foster is trying to do – to make connections between disparate texts. It is also about ideas and that is what Foster is after as well; he asks what the author’s ideas are by looking beyond the surface of what is written. I think too that if this approach is done well one can’t help but form relationships with the materials and the minds behind them which is also very CM.

No book (other than the Bible) is perfect so I will be nitpicky and tell you that there were some things I wished for in this book. I wish there was more of a how-to. Foster does go through lots of examples but I wished there were more specific techniques given. I don’t honetsly know if there are more specific techniques that could be given, but I know I wished for them. I also wondered to what degree his approach could be applied to non-Western literature. Foster alludes to this problem but it seemed like a lot of what he looked at was based on Greek mythology, and Bible and Christian symbolism so I did wonder how all this would carry over into other cultures. Lastly, Foster seems to have his pet authors. I got a little tired of hearing about DH Lawrence and Toni Morrison.

Overall though this is a book I was really glad to have read. I hope to incorporate its ideas into our homeschool and perhaps will even make my kids read parts of it someday (carefully selected parts because actually Foster deals with a lot of adult themes – so read carefully!).


One response to this post.

  1. […] civilization (p. 59). Rhetoric is about using persuasive, public language (p. 60). I am reminded of Thomas Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor which talks about all the background knowledge one needs to truly understand a piece of literature. […]


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